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How to Study
Suggestions for High School and College Students
By Arthur W. Kornhauser
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1993 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
The Meaning of Study
THERE are two aims in study: one is to acquire certain bodies of knowledge; the other is to acquire certain abilities to do things. We study history to gain a knowledge of ancient Greece or of prewar Germany, whereas we study arithmetic or French to gain an ability to solve problems or read French books. Clearly, there is no sharp line between these two kinds of study. Knowledge inevitably plays some part in guiding future thought and action and is part of our ability to do. Likewise, our knowledge of how to do things and our knowledge of specific things will always affect the efficiency and ways in which we can assimilate new information.
There remains, however, a difference in emphasis between studying to acquire knowledge and studying to acquire the ability to use knowledge and to do things. With regard to studying in college, major emphasis undoubtedly belongs on the side of developing your abilities. Education should increase your powers: your abilities to work and play, vote and understand others, read and think, organize a business, plead a case, or cure a disease. This does not minimize the place of knowledge—which is in fact subordinate to the ability to use knowledge, but an indispensable subordinate. Intelligent thought and action always have sound knowledge as their basis.
One of the most valuable abilities you can develop is the ability to study, which is not something you do the night before an exam. Rather, you have to learn how to study so you can independently approach a novel problem and think it through to a successful solution. Mastering a method of doing something is also an accomplishment that can only be achieved through genuine study. Learning to study effectively is far more important than merely acquiring a particular body of information. In most fields, information may quickly become obsolete, whereas analyzing and approaching a problem, gathering the necessary information, and interpreting that information are skills that will not tarnish quite so quickly. Knowing how to study is tantamount to knowing how to think, observe, concentrate, organize and analyze information. It is the application of intelligence to the task of understanding and controlling the world about us. In learning to study, you are learning to think and to live. When students do not learn how to study, the biggest job of their education is left undone.
Study includes not only what you gain from books and the classroom but also what you acquire through direct observation and through actual performance. However, because it would be impossible—and too laborious—to collect stores of knowledge and points of view firsthand, studying in high school and college depends to a great extent on studying from books. Owing to this central position of books and classroom work in school study, the following pages have been limited to a discussion of these forms of learning. Nevertheless, you should continually aim to tie your book learning firmly to your everyday or firsthand experience. When you do this, the subject you are studying becomes infused with the richer meanings only your own observations and activities can bring.
In studying, as in other activities, skill is not acquired by wishing or resolving—or by reading books like this one. Rather, you must put forth a strenuous and persistent effort if results are to be achieved. Here, as elsewhere practice makes perfect. In other words, you must first determine where you need to improve, and then resolutely hold to the task of acquiring the methods you find outlined here. Although you may gain a certain level of comfort by reading the suggestions that follow, it is only by using the suggested procedures—over and over again—that you will profit from them.CHAPTER 2
A Fundamental Requirement for Effective Study
THERE is one fundamental and indispensable requirement for effective study more basic than any rule or technique, and to which all specific advice concerning how to read, take notes, tackle problems, and form good study habits is secondary. This key requirement is a driving motive, an intense desire to learn and to achieve, an interest in things intellectual, a "will to do" in your scholastic work. If you want to learn how to study effectively, first develop a desire to master your studies and believe that you will master them. All else is subordinate to such spirit.
How can this spirit be acquired? First, you need to build up definite ambitions and ideals toward which your studies can lead, as well as acknowledge frankly the consequences of poor work versus the rewards of good work. Picture clearly to yourself the satisfactions of success versus the disappointments of failure. Sometimes students' attitudes are transformed from those of indifference and merely "getting by" to those of earnest and energetic effort by some emergency that causes them to think seriously about their future. Reading biographies also often helps provide the necessary spark. But the simplest and most direct stimulus to change may involve nothing more than the deliberate planning of your life. A little thought given to yourself and the things you are working for is an excellent incentive to serious study.
A second drive that makes true study possible is an interest in the subject studied. You can develop an interest in studying particular subjects if you follow these four rules:
1. Acquire information about the subject from a variety of sources. The more you know about a subject the easier it is to develop an interest in it. For example, it is easier to become interested in professional baseball if you learn about the players and about the fine points of the game. The same is true in every other field. Your school subjects are no exception. It is a matter of giving your interests a chance to develop by getting into the subjects.
2. Tie the new information to your old bodies of knowledge. Discover relations of new facts to old matters of interest. Historic events take on new interest when they are seen in relation to present issues. Physics and chemistry become more interesting to many students when they can see the application of these subjects in everyday life.
3. Make new information personal. Relate it to matters of real concern to you. This material on "how to study," for example, has interest for you only as you think about how it can help you.
4. Actively use your new knowledge. Raise questions about the points made by the book or the instructor. Anticipate what the next steps and the conclusions will be, and then check on these. Think and talk and write about the ideas; make them play a part in your actions. Take the relevant material from one class into other classes. Discuss difficult and questionable points with your friends and classmates. Consider what the implications and consequences of new ideas obtained in your studies might be.
When you study with eager interest, you will discover pleasure and fascination in what you study. It is no longer work. This is the kind of studying that overcomes distractions and requires no effort or will power. It is like reading a novel or seeing a movie. The greater the proportion of your study that is of this sort the better. But the positive relationship between interest and efforts works both ways. Even when you begin studying a subject with little interest, oftentimes simply "staying with it" and trying to make it an active part of your thinking will help you develop an interest in that subject.
Although certain studies are bound to be uninteresting, especially at the beginning—and parts of these studies may continue to be uninteresting—honest efforts to master those subjects nearly always beget some level of interest. When you appreciate the necessities and rewards of effective studying, and have the will to succeed in a subject, you will rarely be disappointed. Further, several important hints can be given for gaining the decisiveness that is essential to carrying good resolutions into actual practice.
1. Make your task definite. Decide what is to be done and when it needs to be done. If it is discouragingly large, break the whole job up. See exactly what is involved in the first part and do that. Concentrate on a definite and manageable piece of work first, then proceed to the next.
2. Feel intensely the urge to do the task before you. Make clear to yourself the relation of the present task to your later studies, as well as to your larger goals and ambitions. There are hundreds of motives for study. Bring them strongly into play.
3. Get started at all costs. Turn your attention away from imagined difficulties and other things that you would rather be doing. One large classification of distracting ideas consists of thoughts of other duties and of disturbing problems and queries. These can usually be shunted off by jotting them down in a notebook or on a pad of paper; most people find that writing these interfering thoughts down frees their minds from annoying tensions and real or imagined difficulties. Once freed of these interferences and irritations, you will find it easier to stay focused on the job at hand. Forget everything else. Once you get well started, you will develop interest in the subject matter itself and will no longer need to hold yourself to the work by sheer force. If you have difficulty getting down to work, a fourth rule will help.
4. Prepare your physical world for study. Sit down in a favorable place for studying, open your books, and take out your pencil and paper. In a word, go through the motions.
5. Check every tendency to daydream. Mind-wandering is a great enemy to effective study. One hour of concentrated study is worth ten with frequent lapses. Work intensely while you work. Guard vigilantly against mind-wandering, and pull yourself back sharply on every occasion. Mind-wandering is very frequently due to inadequate understanding of words or to a deficient background in the present subject. Where this is the trouble, it always pays to go back and provide the necessary foundation at whatever pains.
6. Face personal problems and worries directly. Then, either adopt the most reasonable solution you can find or seek objective help from someone else. Worry and personal problems are frequent causes of ineffective study and can interfere with all sorts of other activities as well. The difficulties range from intense fears of failure or serious misgivings about health to troubled love affairs. Sometimes there are no completely satisfactory answers. Many young people manage either to avoid the difficulties or to meet them without great strain. However, a certain number of students may wish to find better ways of meeting their personal problems. For them the following suggestions are offered:
a) Determine as objectively and as definitely as you can just where your problem lies. What changes are needed to remove the trouble, and which of the changes can be made? Remember, sometimes it is easier to alter your goals or desires than the external conditions. In any case, the important thing is to decide what needs to be done and also what can be done. Even in the absence of a perfect solution, some solutions will be better than others. Determine which is best, then plan precisely what your course of action will involve. Then carry it through.
b) Find an understanding confidant who can help you analyze and meet your difficulties. Very often the suggestions under (a) can best be followed by first talking over your problems with someone in whom you have confidence—for example, an older friend, school adviser, psychologist, instructor, or clergyman.
c) Don't deceive yourself by dodging the problem or pretending you have solved it. For example, if social distractions prevent you from doing satisfactory schoolwork far better to admit this fact to yourself and decide what to do about it than resort to excuses and defenses like convincing yourself that your studies "really aren't of any importance anyhow."CHAPTER 3
Conditions Favorable for Concentration
EFFECTIVE study demands concentration. The ability to concentrate is largely governed by your surroundings and your physical condition. Being absorbed in study is being oblivious to everything else. Learning to concentrate and study involves learning to overcome distractions. Three kinds of distractions you may face are: (1) distractions in your surroundings (noise, glare of lights, etc.), (2) distractions arising in your body (feeling of fatigue, headache, etc.), and (3) distractions in the form of irrelevant ideas. The problem of study is in no small measure the problem of dealing successfully with these distractions, which are generally best dealt with by elimination. A very few of the more important rules for eliminating these distractions are as follows:
1. Whenever possible, study in a quiet room. Some students find that it is necessary to eliminate visual distractions as well as noises. Others are able to tune out and thus tolerate moderate levels of distraction, whether auditory or visual, or both.
2. See that your place of study is properly lighted, heated, and ventilated. The light should not shine directly into your eyes or be visible out of the corner of your eye. Also, avoid a glaring reflection from the pages of your book.
3. Arrange your chair and work to avoid strain and fatigue. Shift your position from time to time. Be comfortable—but avoid being too comfortable. It is almost impossible to study strenuously when one is settled back in a large easychair or is reclining freely on a couch.
4. Keep yourself in good physical condition. Eat at regular times. Eat with your family or friends whenever you can. Make your mealtime a recreation period. Avoid heavy meals at noon and never begin study immediately after eating. Manage to get some regular exercise and recreation. Remember that a little regular exercise is infinitely more valuable than occasional sprees of physical activity.
5. Get sufficient sleep so that you feel adequately rested. Even if it means carrying fewer courses or dropping certain outside activities, it will pay in the long run to avoid cutting in on your sleep. If you have difficulty going to sleep, do something to take your mind off your work and relax before retiring. A little light reading, a warm bath, a walk, a conversation, a letter to family or friends often help. If you are bothered by sleeplessness, consult your physician.
Unfortunately, most of us do not inhabit a perfect world. Not all distractions can always be eliminated. Hence, you must learn to concentrate in spite of them. If you have developed a genuine interest in your studies, you should be able to sustain work despite minor distractions and difficulties. Nearly all of the specific suggestions throughout later chapters have a direct bearing on better concentration. Mind-wandering is after all a symptom of insufficient interest and poor study procedures, not the disorder itself.
Excerpted from How to Study by Arthur W. Kornhauser. Copyright © 1993 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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